The Gift of Bethlehem and Consent of the Governed

Since 2007 Peter Johnston has periodically used the holiday season to draw attention to the remarkable overflow of cultural common good stemming from the Gift of Bethlehem two millennia ago. Drawing upon the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, join Peter as he documents the constructive contributions Christ and Christians have made particularly to economic, political, and social liberty throughout the centuries.

It is a bedrock principle of American liberty – consent of the governed.

Our Founders included it in our Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

The Declaration then continues: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”

The principle of consent of the governed marked a shift from what had been taking place in the colonies under English rule and became a monumental principle of government with the new nation, but it was not a totally novel concept.

Many rightly see it in the writings of John Locke, specifically in Two Treatises on Government published in 1689.

Its timing paralleled the English Bill of Rights of 1689 following The Glorious Revolution of 1688 with Parliament asserting authority over the crown and included the emergence of the consent of the governed.

In his excellent book We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future, Matthew Spalding writes, “In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke taught that all men were by nature free and equal, that legitimate government came into existence through a social contract, that political power required consent, and that government should be constitutionally limited to protecting fundamental rights of life, liberty, and property.”

But Locke’s insights were not novel as Spalding understands.  He further explains, “the American Founders understood Locke in light of classical political reason and biblical revelation, as part of the English Whig republican thinking and the natural law tradition in which they understood themselves.”

In fact, our American heritage can trace consent of the governed back to the Pilgrims and other “Strangers” on the Mayflower in 1620.  After having been blown off course from their intended route to Virginia where they would have joined another settlement of colonists, they first anchored off the peninsula we know as Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Recognizing a need to agree on some form of civil government, they agreed on a short document, The Mayflower Compact.

In his article entitled “The Mayflower Compact and Seeds of American Democracy” Jeff Jacoby writes, “the Mayflower Compact was something new under the sun.… it established the first government in the New World based on the voluntary consent of the governed.”  Even those who would have been without any political rights in England were given the opportunity to sign.

The Pilgrims were Calvinists in the tradition of reformer John Calvin who died less than sixty years before the Pilgrims left England.   Tracing the historical background of consent of the governed, scholar John Eidsmore writes, “The concept of ‘consent of the governed’ has its roots in John Locke’s social compact, which is in turn rooted in the Calvinist concept of the covenant by which men, in the presence of God, join themselves together into a body politic.  And correctly understood, the concept is biblical.”  Eidsmore documents from the Old Testament that both Hebrew kings and judges “governed with the consent of the governed, and that the Israelites had some voice in the selection of their leaders” and offers scripture from the New Testament backing up that principle.

Yes, consent of the governed has a rich Judeo-Christian heritage.   As we approach Christmas we can be thankful once again for contribution of the Gift of Bethlehem to this bedrock principle of the  American rule of law and Western liberty.

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